Over the weekend my wife and I went to the Gorilla Tango Theater to watch a collection of five ten minute plays. It was something of a nostalgia trip for me—the theater very much resembled the theater I built and produced plays in more than forty years ago—audience seats on risers, slightly raised platform for the stage, lighting bar on a pipe across the front of the stage. I could seat about three times as many in my audience as GTT, my venue was three-quarter round, and my lighting had a bit more capability but the resemblance certainly took me back.
The plays varied in quality from excellent to complete mess. I won’t analyze them in detail. Suffice it to say that the play written by our friend (which is what we primarily came to see) was excellent.
If any of you are thinking of writing a play (and most of you probably are), here are a few tips for writing a ten minute play:
- Have an idea for a story that can be told in ten minutes. The Ten Commandments wouldn’t have been all that compelling as a ten minute play.
- A play with only one point of view is a monologue. If you’re only interested in (or capable of) expressing one point of view, why put it in the form of dialogue?
- Don’t have your characters tell the audience how they feel. Show them how they feel.
- Don’t tell your audience what to think. Show them why to think it.
- If your ten minute play starts at fever intensity with the actors shouting at each other, there’s no where left to go. Start quieter.
- Theater is the most collaborative of art forms. Not only is there the creator and the viewer (audience) but there’s a director and one or more actors. Anything you want to control you must write into your play. Anything you don’t write into your play will be beyond your control.
- Write about something you know or at least know of. For example, Chicago cops come in pairs (or more) and don’t routinely banter with perps.
- There are many literary forms: poem, short story, play, novel, essay, sermon, etc.. Very, very few of us can master any of them let alone many of them. There are only a very few Shakespeares or Pushkins. If you want to preach a sermon, a play is a lousy way to do it.
On a side note I can recommend Arturo’s Tacos in Bucktown. Order the tacos; don’t waste your time with anything else.
And concentrate on rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. In so short a compass, the sound of the words is the driver.
. . . the theater I built and produced plays in . . .
I have the feeling that between us you and I have held every job short of astronaut.
Don’t tell your audience what to think.
Thank you. I’ve known more than one professional book editor who doesn’t get that. Particularly annoying is when they think things need to be made literal when we’re writing for kids. So exactly wrong: kids have functioning imaginations. They’ll do half the work for you if you let them.
And if they don’t get it right away, they will later. Lately we’ve had a spate of letters from kids now in college who read our old Animorphs series. The letters often include remarks like, “Oh, that’s what you were talking about!” It’s like telling a joke and getting the laugh ten years later. So much better than beating them over the head with it.
When I was in publishing, the different divisions would hold little talks with folks in other divisions from time to time. One such talk I attended was with the editor of the children’s books division. Everybody thinks writing for kid is easy, he said, it’s not. As a consequence of that belief, they were always getting scads of manuscripts over the transom. He and his staff felt honor-bound to read them, and besides, you never know….
One such effort that came to them was entitled, “The Ice Cube Who Wanted to Be a Cowboy”. The story was about a little ice cube in Chicago, in the winter, who wanted to be a cowboy. So, after some adventures, he finally makes it to Texas and lands a job as a cowboy. In the final scene of the book, the little ice cube is astride a horse, or as much astride as an ice cube can be, getting ready for the roundup. Unfortunately, the little fellow did not take into consideration the hot Texas sun, and the final paragraph ended with a small puddle of water on the saddle with a tiny cowboy hat floating on top of it.
Writing for kids ain’t easy.
Based on what you’ve told me about yourself I’ve thought that myself. My eyes were too bad for me to be an astronaut.
Back in the mid 1960s I built a three-quarter round theater seating 156 people in a church basement. The company that a friend and I founded produced a half dozen plays over the next four years. After that I disassociated myself from the company but it continued for another few years under a different name.
Our first two productions were Celebration and the rather avant-garde Promenade. My productions were the first outside of the original New York runs of those shows. On Promenade I beat out the newly formed Steppenwolf Theater company for the rights. On opening night their entire founding membership was sitting in my front row.
I then produced another half dozen shows for various community theater companies around town, most notably the now defunct Northbrook Civic Theater.
Based on my observations from the other night I’m thinking vaguely of going back on stage. Apparently, middle aged to elderly character actors are in desperately short supply.